WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange freed from prison

WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange has walked free from prison and will no longer be extradited from the UK, after reaching a plea deal with US authorities.

According to WikiLeaks, Assange left high-security London prison Belmarsh on 24 June and has already flown out of the UK after being granted bail.

While WikiLeaks noted on X that the deal “has not yet been formally finalised”, Assange has provisionally agreed with the US Department of Justice (DOJ) to plead guilty to one count of conspiracy to obtain and disclose national defence information, in exchange for 62 months of time served – the amount of time he has already spent imprisoned in the UK.

“After more than five years in a 2×3 metre cell, isolated 23 hours a day, he will soon reunite with his wife Stella Assange, and their children, who have only known their father from behind bars,” it wrote. “WikiLeaks published groundbreaking stories of government corruption and human rights abuses, holding the powerful accountable for their actions. As editor-in-chief, Julian paid severely for these principles, and for the people’s right to know.”

WikiLeaks added that more information on the plea deal will be provided as soon as possible.

The deal means Assange will not spend time incarcerated in the US, where his legal team were worried he would face trial without the benefit of First Amendment protections for journalists and could have received the death penalty if ultimately convicted.

In May 2019, 52-year-old Assange was publicly charged by the DOJ with 17 counts under the US Espionage Act 1917 and one count under the US Computer Fraud and Abuse Act over WikiLeaks’ 2010 publication of documents leaked by US Army whistleblower Chelsea Manning.

WikiLeaks published groundbreaking stories of government corruption and human rights abuses, holding the powerful accountable for their actions. As editor-in-chief, Julian paid severely for these principles, and for the people’s right to know WikiLeaks statement on X

US prosecutors claimed that the leaked material – which revealed a range of potential human rights violations and war crimes committed by the US Army and CIA in Afghanistan and Iraq – put American lives at risk. However, the violations that the leaks exposed, including the killing of 12 people in Baghdad by a US Apache helicopter, have never been officially investigated.

Prior to the DOJ case, Assange spent seven years holed up in Ecuador’s embassy in London, claiming that separate rape and sexual assault charges brought against him in Sweden would lead to his extradition to the US. While Ecuador granted Assange asylum to stay in its London embassy in 2012, after UK courts ruled he could be extradited to Sweden, this status was revoked in 2019, leading to his arrest by the British state.

Since then, Assange has been locked in a legal dispute over attempts to extradite him to the US, in a process that has been described as “institutional corruption” by the new editor-in-chief of WikiLeaks, Kristinn Hrafnsson.

“Julian Assange is a political prisoner, it is abundantly clear,” he told a press conference in mid-May 2024.

While Manning was charged and convicted of espionage in connection with the WikiLeaks materials, her 35-year prison sentence was commuted by Barack Obama shortly before he left the White House in 2017.

Commenting on Assange’s plea deal, Seth Stern, director of advocacy for Freedom of the Press Foundation (FPF), said: “It’s good news that the DOJ is putting an end to this embarrassing saga. But it’s alarming that the Biden administration felt the need to extract a guilty plea for the purported crime of obtaining and publishing government secrets. That’s what investigative journalists do every day. 

“The plea deal won’t have the precedential effect of a court ruling, but it will still hang over the heads of national security reporters for years to come. The deal doesn’t add any more prison time or punishment for Assange. It’s purely symbolic.

It’s good news that the DOJ is putting an end to this embarrassing saga. But it’s alarming that the Biden administration felt the need to extract a guilty plea for the purported crime of obtaining and publishing government secrets. That’s what investigative journalists do every day Seth Stern, Freedom of the Press Foundation

“The administration could’ve easily just dropped the case but chose to instead legitimise the criminalisation of routine journalistic conduct and encourage future administrations to follow suit. And they made that choice knowing that Donald Trump would love nothing more than to find a way to throw journalists in jail.”

FPF said that under the legal theory used in Assange’s indictment, any journalist could be convicted of violating the Espionage Act for obtaining national defence information from a source, communicating with a source to encourage them to provide national defence information, or publishing national defence information.

Assange’s plea and sentencing is scheduled for 26 June in Saipan, a Pacific island that is part of the US Commonwealth, chosen for its proximity to Assange’s birth country of Australia and the fact it is not a formal US state. From here, Assange is expected to return to Australia.

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